Land swap, acquisition talks continue

The Pagosa Springs Town Council considered the possible futures of four downtown properties in as many meetings last week, most of the business done absent public input or scrutiny.

With council in executive sessions Thursday and Friday of last week, only limited details of those discussions were released during open portions of the meetings, as per Colorado law. Furthermore, during a board work session on Monday, Sept. 22, it was revealed by interim town manager Tamra Allen that council members Angela Atkinson, Stan Holt and Mayor Ross Aragon had met with an interested party to discuss a possible purchase of a property by the town. The meeting, with Jean Gray, representing the Watters property, was unannounced, private and not open — in apparent violation of the Colorado Sunshine Laws.

Of the four properties in question last week, three could be considered prime riverfront parcels, while the fourth, the former CDOT equipment yard adjacent to the Sisson Library on U.S. 160, continues to have unresolved problems regarding its environmental soundness.

Purchased by the Springs resort in August 2007 for $285,000 at an auction of county properties (during the county’s attempt to mitigate its fiscal problems), the former CDOT property was offered to the town in trade five months after its purchase. Specifically, in a proposed expansion presented to town council by the Springs Resort in January 2008, a two-for-one trade was suggested, offering the former CDOT site for the site of the current Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center as well as the site of the old Seeds of Learning building at the corner of San Juan Street and Hot Springs Boulevard.

Reconvening after its executive session last Thursday, council discussed how to proceed on the proposed trade during open session. Regarding the values of the properties proposed in the trade, council member Darrel Cotton said, “Everyone wins in this deal,” and went on to ask, “Why do we need an appraisal?”

Council member Stan Holt agreed that the town could spare itself the expense of an appraisal and go forward with the trade. Although council member Jerry Jackson agreed with the positive benefits of the trade, saying, “I don’t see a downside to this,” he did qualify his support for the deal, saying, “I think we need an appraisal, for the record.”

Only council member Shari Pierce expressed doubts, saying, “We need to decide if we really want to do this, and trade away properties with river access.”

Pierce also doubted the value of the former CDOT property, asking, “Is it safe? Considering its past history?”

Attempting to respond to Pierce, interim town manager Tamra Allen stated that she was not sure about environmental studies conducted at the site.

The last study conducted on the property was delivered in October 2005 — a fact confirmed by county officials and representatives of the Springs Resort. Findings of that report indicated there were issues with buried solid waste and three underground storage tanks that remained on the property. Furthermore, cleanup estimates provided that same year, went as high as $50,000, a cost that would now likely be higher given the increases in fuel and material costs over the past three years.

Agreeing to contract appraisals for the three properties in question (with stipulations that the Springs Resort would fund the appraisal on its property), it is unclear when the town will release figures for the appraised values of their properties.

However, in a phone interview, Aragon stated that the trade is “not being seriously considered at this point.

“We’ll have a better idea of where we stand on the trade once the appraisals come in,” said Aragon, adding that any serious discussion of a trade is contingent on those appraisals.

Council will have an appraisal on the Watters property in hand at its Oct. 7 meeting. A proposed purchase of that property was the focus of an executive session during the council’s Thursday, Sept. 25, meeting. Although executive sessions are normally closed to the public, discussion on the Watters property was notable for the inclusion of Bill Dawson and Matt Mees at the meeting.

When asked why Dawson and Mees attended the executive session, Atkinson stated that, “Their attendance was in relation to the Watters negotion,” and that, “I’m not comfortable disclosing anything more because it was an executive session.”

Allen likewise refused to disclose details from the executive session and stated, succinctly, “The Springs Resort has a vested interest in the property.”

Aragon was more forthcoming, saying, “Mees and Dawson were there in an advisory capacity and representing Bill Whittington and the Springs Resort. Mr. Whittington had, at one time, tried to acquire the Watters property and his background in those dealings were important to the town in its negotiations.”

According to Jean Gray, representing the Watters property, the Springs Resort made an offer in 2006, which was rejected. A counteroffer was presented to the Springs Resort, which was also rejected.

“They (the Watters Trust) were asking more than $900,000,” said Aragon, “and Bill Whittington (owner of the Springs Resort), through Mees and Dawson, said that was overvalued. They advised us to get an appraisal.”

Gray, in a phone interview, stated that the amount of the counteroffer made to the Springs Resort represented current market values for the property. Pointing out that the Springs Resort paid $350,000 for a .38 acre lot adjacent to the Watters property in March 2008, Gray stated, “What we’re taking into full consideration is comparable properties sold in that area.”

With the appraisal on the Watters property due today for presentation to council at next Tuesday’s meeting, the town could determine how to proceed with the possible purchase of that property by next week. However, with an indeterminate timetable set for appraisals on the properties enmeshed in a proposed trade, council has the time to fully consider the ramifications of that trade and its benefit to the town.

Town council meets again in chambers at Town Hall, 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7. The meeting is open to anyone wishing to attend.

jim@pagosasun.com